The Shadow Factory & Southampton's new theater
By Howard Brenton
NST City, Southampton
Until March 3
By Michael Burland
New theaters are like the apocryphal London buses – you wait for years and nothing happens, then two come along at once. We've recently praised The Bridge Theatre in London, and now Southampton, on England's south coast, finds itself with a great new £32m arts complex that boasts a 450 seat theater, a studio space, a screening room, and all manner of rehearsal and workshops rooms. NST (Nuffield Southampton Theatres) City has grown out of a facility on Southampton University, and occupies one side of Guildhall Square, an area that is being developed with new restaurants and a pedestrianized area, aiming to become the city's Cultural Quarter. Samuel Hodges, NST's CEO, has chosen an adventurous roster of plays, eschewing obvious commercial ticket-bait in favor of works by Schiller, Aristophanes and Tennessee Williams (Streetcar). It's another good reason to get out of London and it deserves to do well – Southampton is not the prettiest of towns, nor the most obvious tourist destination, mainly because it was blown to pieces by the Luftwaffe in Word War II. Which leads us to the theater's opening show. It couldn't be more appropriate.
In 1940, Britain stood alone against the Nazis. France and the rest of Europe had fallen, Germany and Soviet Russia had signed a Non-aggression Pact, and the United States was two years away from joining the fight against fascism. All that stood between the UK and a Nazi invasion were the English Channel and the Royal Air Force. The RAF desperately needed fighter planes, and the best, the Supermarine Spitfire, was built in Woolston, Southampton. Unsurprisingly the Germans mercilessly bombed the factory, destroying the building, though not all of the machinery. Howard Brenton's new play with music portrays the city's, and the government's, response.
Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, was Minister of Aircraft Production (a scathing, ruthless but human Hilton McRae). He comes up with a plan to requisition local business properties in which Spitfire parts can continue to be made - the eponymous ‘shadow factories'. One of these is owned by a bolshy fictional laundry owner, Fred Dimmock (a strong David Birrell, who also plays the RAF Air Marshall Dowding), who resists what he sees as the government's draconian powers despite the threats of imprisonment delivered by his friend and Supermarine manager (Daniel York).
Brenton's left wing credentials are on show as Fred Dimmock sets himself up against the powers that be, including Beaverbrook, the factory manager, and the American aristocrat who owns the mansion also taken over by Supermarine. Mind you, Fred's also against ‘Pompeyites' - denizens of nearby rival city Portsmouth, one of whom has the audacity to fall in love with his daughter – Fred's mother (Anita Dobson, also playing the aristo) cries "A mixed marriage in our family!"
One takes away a little known, fascinating piece of history and a huge respect for the Brits of all classes who, despite their differences, held the Nazi threat at bay during a crucial time in world history.